Taxpayer cash to keep Kevin Costner in Utah? Film incentives can boost rural economies, Robert Gehrke says.

Utah is putting up millions in hopes of bringing movies and television productions to rural Utah, and with that comes the critics.

(Photo courtesy Paramount Network) Kevin Costner as John Dutton in “Yellowstone.”

This summer, Kevin Costner is scheduled to begin work on his sweeping passion project, an epic five-movie saga titled “Horizon.” And that work will begin here in Utah. But it might cost taxpayers several million bucks to keep him here.

Costner’s production was on lawmakers’ minds this session as they discussed upping Utah’s film incentive to keep pace with tax breaks offered by other states and Canada to lure movie and television productions.

The “Dances With Wolves” and “Bull Durham” star had shot three seasons of his acclaimed series “Yellowstone” in Utah before relocating to Montana because it offered a sweeter deal. He wasn’t shy in laying out what was on the line

“I’ve dreamed for a long time about making my movie in Utah,” he said in a statement to Deseret News earlier this year. “My biggest hope is that the state backs [an expanded incentive] and that dream becomes a reality. I don’t really want to go anywhere else with these five movies.”

It worked.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Utah state Sen. Ron Winterton, R-Roosevelt, sponsored a bill raising the cap on Utah’s film incentive to $12 million. It had been $8.3 million after being bumped up from $6.8 million a year earlier. So productions in Utah will be able to get a tax rebate of 20%-25% of the cost of the project up to a total of $12 million.

Importantly, the incentive is targeted toward filming in rural parts of the state.

But movies always have critics, and so did this legislation.

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, riffed on the Costner connection. “If you build it, they will come,” he said — quoting the famous line from “Field of Dreams.” But, Brammer argued, there was no evidence that productions have come to Utah and provided a net financial positive to the state.

Several academic studies have looked at film incentives nationwide and found them to be a bad investment of taxpayer dollars, said Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville.

“These incentives have historically not delivered as promised,” he said, adding that the rebate these productions get come from the state’s public education funding. “If you have concerns about fat-cat Hollywood, just know our school kids are paying for this incentive.”

And there is some validity to the criticisms — film jobs come and go. It also plays into competition among states to see who can throw the most money at the industry. And there are studies of programs in other states that indicate that incentives don’t necessarily generate a big return on investment.

There are also studies specific to Utah’s film incentive of the benefits they have generated over the last decade.

One, by the University of Utah’s Kem Gardner Policy Institute, said that every dollar spent on film incentives generates $7 in local economic growth. That’s pretty good.

And earlier this year, the Utah Film Commission issued a report from consulting firm Olsberg•SBI that measured the impacts of Utah’s film incentive. It found that — even with a significant drop-off during the pandemic — movie and television productions spent an average of about $53 million over the last three years. An estimated 86% of those projects came to the state because of available incentives.

Now, in the context of Utah’s overall economy, $53 million — or even $65 million that was spent pre-pandemic — is not a huge deal. But WHERE it is spent matters a lot.

More than half of the film permits issued from 2017 to 2020 were issued for rural locations. And, as I wrote back in 2019, that provides a big influx of spending to these rural locations.

They need local restaurants to feed the crews. They need hotels for them to stay. They spend money on equipment and extras and crews. When one production starring Nicolas Cage rolled into Utah a few years ago, it took over a hotel that was normally closed for the winter and spent $2 million in the community.

When you factor all that secondary spending into the equation, film production in Utah has produced $614 million over the past six years — again, a significant chunk of it in rural counties that need a boost.

The average household income in Utah is a little over $75,000, but in rural counties it is between $20,000 and $33,000 less. While the unemployment rate statewide is just over 2%, the rate is doubled or tripled in rural counties.

As a state, we spend millions on economic incentives, mostly along the Wasatch Front. This year, the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity announced up to $27 million in incentives, with $22 million going to companies located in Orem, Lehi and Farmington.

There is a concerted effort to try to get more state incentives for rural Utah, but it’s not easy. This film incentive is just one small way to bolster those economies and make sure everyone shares in the state’s prosperity. And it the film incentives don’t bring in results, they expire in two years.

“If the program isn’t working, and it isn’t worth it, and its a loser for the state, then I’m the first one to say, ‘let’s do away with it,’” said Kelly Stowell, executive director of Kane County’s Center for Education, Business and the Art, and an advocate for the incentive. “But it’s my firm belief that it’s a great thing for the State of Utah, especially the rural counties.”

So let’s give it a shot. If it works, it might mean “Lights, camera, cash-in” for rural Utah.

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